Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Suva Bay, Fiji

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This poems reflect thoughts about the nature of seduction, recruiting, and the need for labor, and how those needs converge with the fantasies, dreams, and longings of young men and women ... this is explored in more detail in the podcast.

Susan Smith Nash at the University of the South Pacific Lodge, Suva, Fiji

Suva, Fiji

Rust and freshly spilled blood
exactly the same smell

perhaps we never realized
it until now

is it the presence of
oxygenated iron?

or simple outrage,
or longing?

Forgive the sky---
the blue echo of water, tide, and time

Old sweat, new chemical acceleration
sapphire blue glitters the ring on my finger

I bask in the sun, rain, and a belief
in you, me,

yet I taste oblivion on my
my lips
my tongue
in my tendons

the agony of chanting in spite of desire
the pain of self-abnegation in spite of
your sweet voice peeling layers away from my heart

I will remember tonight:
palms rustling, a quiet Fijian singing songs to tourists

but memory takes place when we least want or expect it
we master the art of disassociation
or, better, the ancient Toltec art of hallucination

the Pacific demands honor

today the sun pulses like my heart
glitter if we believe

I still believe in the power of you –

of oxygenated iron
when I simply look to you

my fires rip away your masks
hand-carved, oxygenated

blood or rust, I will never give up
you, or my heart glittering sapphire


Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Sempiternal Tourist

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This is a contemplation of the nature of travel writing, and seeing through the eyes of a tourist -- or at least an outsider whose perceptions have been mediated by travel brochures, gothic romances, and Graham Greene-esque spy novels. Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey suddenly has the ring of an eternal verity.

The Sempiternal Tourist

It will be a the perfect “recuerdo de XXX” photograph – I’m on a street-corner in the romantic colonial town of La Antigua, Guatemala, founded in 1543 to be the political and commercial center for what is now Chiapas, Yucatan, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Belize, and Costa Rica.

Susan Smith Nash at the University of the South Pacific Lodge, Suva, Fiji

Now Antigua is on the worldwide register of historical treasures. I’m not sure of the official name of that list – only that I’m familiar with a few of them, including the ancient walled city of Baku, Azerbaijan, which includes the fascinating Maiden’s Tower. It’s a good place to take pictures and feel a part of some sort of virtual National Geographic experience.

“Smile!” commands my friend. I obey, even as I’m aware that I’ll come out looking like a rather weird “gringa” – rumpled silk blouse over wrinkled khakis and absolutely not for walking on cobbled streets Italian black pumps. I also have the obligatory “mochila” (backpack) making me a bizarre variant of the “mochilera” enrolled in any one of the 80 or so Spanish language immersion courses offered here, in a university-sponsored in-depth study of Mayan culture, or simply an extended vacation between semesters.

“This will be perfect!” says my friend, a civil engineer who has specialized in stabilizing buildings in this earthquake-prone land. “The balloons are in the picture, also the colonial architecture.”

A neatly-dressed street vendor clutching an enormous bouquet of helium-filled balloons greets us. He’s merely being polite. We are wasting his time. We aren’t prospective customers – no children are accompanying us.

I imagine how the photograph is likely to turn out. Me, blonde, rumpled and pale, juxtaposed with the explosion of color created by the balloons – it will be a delightful photograph – something that could be blown up and converted into a lively acrylic painting or pastel.

I once met an artist who had a second career as a flight attendant. His job was perfect, he said. It allowed him to fly for free to locations where he could paint lively compositions featuring flowers, fabrics, and folklore. Ecuador and Guatemala were ideal, he said. You could stay at a bed and breakfast for around $25 per day, and the scenes were fantastic. I went online and took a look at his virtual gallery. He was right. In painting pictures of indigenous women, marketplaces, local architecture, volcanoes, vegetation, he had captured the energy of the exotic.

Did he ever paint the processions associated with Lent, or the bright “carpets” made of colored sawdust? He said those things made him uncomfortable. He was a member of a small Assembly of God congregation and he viewed Central and South American Catholicism as somewhat dangerous.

“Did you know that some people literally re-enact crucifixion?” he commented to me. “They also mutilate themselves.”

“Are you talking about the penitentes?” I asked him. There were many isolated towns in northern New Mexico, as well as in the Philippines where individuals re-enacted the last few days of Christ’s torment, from crown of thorns, to lashes on back and side, and nails in hands and feet.

“Yes,” he said in a hushed voice, appalled.

It would definitely take a strong stomach to paint such scenes. To capture the images may even put one in danger. What struck me at that moment, though, was not the sublime nature of penance, but that so many of the world’s cultures – even those ostensibly diametrically opposed to each other – practiced similar rites. In observing the penitentes I could not help but think of Shia sects in southern Azerbaijan and northern Iran where the devout whip themselves with heavy metal chains.

For the sempiturnal tourist, the exotic is no longer exotic. It symbolizes pure gaze – observation, projection, fantasy – with no real contact with people, politics, or feelings. The tourist learns to package the experience in a way that can be “sold” to his or her audiences – in receptions, meetings, restaurants or bars where relatives, coworkers, individuals become part of the “sale.”

Sometimes other tourists will swap stories. When this happens, the narrative becomes spun around the needs of the community and becomes a place to explore and reinforce cultural or cross-cultural values (or prejudices).

But those possibilities mean little to me as I stand on the street corner in Antigua, Guatemala. I wonder where the next “photo op” will present itself. Will it be of a wedding party standing outside the newly restored cream-yellow cathedral? My friend informs me that it’s very popular these days to be married in Antigua.

“Very romantic,” I say. I really cannot imagine a more gorgeous setting. “What do they think of all the tourists milling around and staring at them?”

“Maybe that’s part of the allure,” he observes. I think about it and I agree. Any work of theater craves an audience. To be married in Antigua on a Saturday afternoon is to guarantee a kind of celebrity. Your image would be preserved in any number of photo albums shelved in offices and in homes all around the world, but mostly in Europe, the U.S., Japan, and Australia.

But what emotions show in the tourist’s face? What are my emotions? No matter what the location, the tableaux is essentially the same. I smile. I wonder if my face is flushed, if my eyes are closed.

Nowhere to be found are the emotions I often feel as I travel. I learned long ago to turn my face into either a) a bland, smiling mask; or b) a joyous mask (suggesting I am in the throes of a neo-platonic awakening as I establish a sense of unity with the “other”). I do not allow my deeper feelings to surface.

So, when this photograph is developed, you won’t see the wealth of emotions I experience when I travel. You won’t see the sadness I feel at being reduced to an object or a symbol (of America, of Americanism). Masked is the curiosity I feel about how people live their lives, day to day. Veiled are the almost violent emotional awakenings when I am able to sit down with individuals from other cultures and talk about what it means to be human. Invisible (I hope) is the amusement I derive from practicing Spanish, but mildly butchering it as I experiment with different inflections, accents, phrasings – Brooklyn, Savannah, Chicago – and then, throwing in sounds (and sometimes words) gleaned from other languages – Russian, French, Portuguese, Swahili, Guarani. The result is a weird gallimaufry or pastiche, I suspect. Oh, the games we play. But – everyone likes to have contact with the exotic, ne-c’est-pas?

Susan in Antigua, Guatemala

The balloon vendor moves down the street. We make our way up the cobbled street to the Palacio on the Plaza Central where I will look for bookstores. I twist my ankle, but pretend I have stopped to adjust my backpack. My shoes are sturdier than they seem. They (or their forebears from previous trips) have carried me to many such street corners.

I put away my camera. I’m already inventing a story to accompany this frame.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Shape-Shifters in Digital Camouflage

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SHAPE-SHIFTERS IN DIGITAL CAMOUFLAGE: This poem was written in Kadena, Okinawa, in response to casualty announcements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and after walking around with an Army officer stationed in Korea who told me of young enlisted men seeking escape (or at least emotional oblivion) in the "juicy bars" outside Gate 2. I'm reposting it because it has relevance again.

Susan Smith Nash at the University of the South Pacific Lodge, Suva, Fiji

bad news hits like ice; later

the memories scour like glaciers, unstoppable

the shape is generic, like any other bullet --

purveyor of indiscriminate cruelty;

a random scream, the baying of hounds

honor and noble purpose

sizzle into steam on a hot pavement

my feet burn and so I run

from those sunlit mornings bright

and try to stay inside

the haze of ambiguity

birds roost in rusty bridges; afraid to dream

who can be trusted when we are like this?

anticipating a freshly trimmed golf course

facsimiles of civilization

instead of these stumbling blocks

memories or ice

--Susan Smith Nash
October 4, 2004 (Kadena, Okinawa)

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Feed the Bears Anyway

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It's summer again, and the tourist-maulings by bear have already commenced in Yellowstone National Park, as well as Montana, Alaska, etc. This is a perennial problem, and all the DON'T FEED THE BEARS signs in the world are ineffectual against human behavior and simple bear-human economics. Feed: Be Entertained. Don't Feed: Be Mauled. Why? Bears get hungry.

What does this have to do with love and life? you might ask.

As it turns out, bears aren't as cute and fuzzy-wuzzy as they seem to be when they appear in Teddy form. Bears, especially grizzlies, are actually nauseatingly indiscriminate omnivores. I'll never forget the sickening spectacle of a mother bear chomping down on the entrails of its adorable but drowned little cub. I saw this on the Discovery channel, and the image still haunts me. I am now a firm believer in keeping a lid on reality, at least while eating dinner.

Analogies from nature can be illuminating. Think of love as a hungry grizzly bear, begging oh so adorably as you tourist along in your car with the window rolled down, bags of marshmallows and candy corn, boxes of Cracker Jacks and graham crackers -- junk food to throw the bears so they'll jump and scrap for it.

You think you're in control, don't you?

Well, I say that anything that will eat its own offspring is not to be trusted. Nor is any living being that must eat enough food in the space of 4 months to last a full 8 months without food. Hibernation -- what a weird concept! Think about the absolute and complete lack of balance in the whole concept. I can't think of anything or anyone who could make even the slightest claim to normalcy who experiences such extremes. It makes bipolar, or manic-depressive behavior look absolutely catatonic.

The last nature show I saw featuring bears in the wild was downright alarming. There was a grizzly bear who had made a sport of stalking hunters. Sure, you say, there's poetic justice in that.

If the bear simply tracked the guy down, lunged at him, swiped at his neck, or mauled him, it would sort of look okay. But, no. This bear cat-and-moused the poor guy he was hunting -- who just happened to have a video camera with him. It was beyond weird. In the woods you could see a big, furry blob -- slowly tracking, following, waiting, feinting, faking, following.

The hunter survived because he decided to go into the lake and stand there until help could come. He was lucky it was summer. Personally, I thought the guy was suicidal when I saw him do that. I mean, we've all seen bears scooping up salmon in an icy stream.

After the guy was rescued, they went out and "tranqu'ed" the bear. I guess he's in a zoo somewhere, goofed up on bear dope, taunted by the presence of zoo-goers and gawkers who smirk at his impotence and confinement. I remember the story of Samson, and I'm thinking that the zoo-guys should expect trouble some day.

I've had my own experiences with bears, and they haven't been pretty. The first bear encounter I had was in Vermont. No, I wasn't stalked by a bear, nor was I forced to stand hip-deep in the frigid waters of Maidstone Lake, waiting for the crazy bear to give up his hunt. No - I had to deal with bear trauma vicariously. My mother - a true berry aficionado - was combating deer flies, mosquitoes and no-see-ums so that she could collect enough raspberries for a pie and a shortcake. It was a sticky mid-August afternoon, and the air was syrupy with pine resin and overripe fruit. She was patiently plucking the fruit when she heard the shaking of leaves and rustling bushes. Assuming (foolishly), that I was obeying orders and picking berries (rather than having sneaked back to camp where I was reading a murder mystery in the cool, insect-free environ of my loft bedroom), she made her way to the noise and greeted me. To her surprise, her 15-year-old daughter did not grumble out a greeting. The snuffling my mother had heard was not me and my chronic allergies. Instead, it was a very startled brown bear. The bear stood up on its hind legs and curled its lips back in a snarl. It was about to attack my mother. At least that's what my mom said.

"Scat, you bad bear! Don't you know how to share? There is enough to go around!" said my mother.

The bear, shamed into submission, turned tail and loped away into the forest. My mother returned to camp, flushed and hair amuss.

"If you had not sneaked off to read a book instead of picking raspberries, I would not have been almost mauled by a bear," announced my mother. It was a guilt trip, and it was such a dramatic one that it bore recounting over and over, to whatever audience would tolerate it. I was starting to disbelieve every word of it by the time I had heard it a few dozen times. Without fail, the audience would turn to me, the bookwormy daughter who was growing fatter by the day in the land of homemade breads, pastries, pies, and absolute isolation.

My next experience was with a bear in captivity. It was in the Rocky Mountains, at a stop along the way where travelers would stop, drink beer and order chicken and beef grilled over an outdoor fire. With a number of virtually indistinguishable restaurants along that stretch of road, I suppose the temptation to differentiate oneself became irresistible, despite the moral or ethical costs. On one trip through the mountains, the driver of the van I was in succumbed to the new "draw" - a caged baby bear. It was, in a word, pathetic. The bear was in a small cage, clearly in bad condition. It was not at all apparent why it was there, who had captured it, or what the fate of its mother was. All there was to see was a pathetic little bear, snuffling in its cage, looking out at visitors with bleary dark eyes.

In comparison to the captive bear, it is somehow more appealing to think of the bears in the wild, however reprehensible their actions toward the unfortunates among them. At least they were not condemned to a small cage in the midst of their beloved Rocky Mountains. At least they were not used as a blunt instrument to torment, shame, and show superiority over one's teenaged daughter. Love - in its free state - is dangerous and wild. Never forget it. Love will maul you if you feed it. Not only that, it will hunt you down and torment you, but ever so slowly.

But it's true -- the bears look so cute snarfing up marshmallows
and candy, bag and all. So eager, so enthusiastic... So, I say, Feed the Bears Anyway. No one lives forever.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

South Beach, Part IV

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The psychic outside Mango's Caribbean Grill told me the thing I always heard from psychics and I was getting tired of it. Nick laughed when he saw my expression.

"Yeah. You think it's funny. You're not having to hear this," I said to him under my breath. That just made him laugh harder.

"You will have a long life," she said. Her hair was bleached yellow blonde, but she had dark black roots. She spoke with a Cuban accent. She had no way of knowing I was completely indifferent to the idea of a long life. "And you will be lucky in your career. People see you as a success."

"Great. Sounds good. Anything else?"

"Someone has blocked you and has put a terrible curse on you. You will not be able to break free and you will never have a happy love life as long as this curse is on you. Someone out there cares about you very much but he's afraid to tell you."

I thought of Dad in Nevada, alone in his Suburban, running radiometric surveys from dawn to dusk, never talking to anyone. Absolutely alone. Was that good for a geologist in his late 70s? What kind of daughter was I, caught up in the things I had committed to ...

The whole thing was making me feel pretty depressed. Maybe psychics said this to everyone. Who knows. But, I had heard the same thing from psychics in New York, Houston, Tucson, and Oklahoma City. I had thrown away quite a bit of cash, it seemed --- obviously nothing they said significantly changed my life. The only thing that had really helped was travel and adrenaline.

Danger made me aware of the real. Without it, reality faded into old Polaroids and echoes of my dad, Marcus, my ex, his dad -- the assorted people and who had come and gone from my life.

The night before, I had awakened in the middle of a deep, vivid dream, and I was crying in my sleep. I was sobbing. Abjectly, with despair so profound I could hardly breathe. I was riding a horse toward Palm Canyon, and it wouldn't follow the trail. Instead, it took me to cholla cactus and scrub mequite, so I'd be scratched. The horse was trying to knock me out of the saddle, but with a minimum of exertion. Then, the dream switched. I was in a Walgreen's drugstore, but itreminded me of Kresge's in Ardmore, Oklahoma, where my memories were still all too vivid. Ardmore, Oklahoma. South, south, south – halfway to Dallas, more than midway to oblivion. That, at least was where I was born. I may feel sadness in my sleep, but by day, I feel nothing.

But I can't afford to remember. I can't afford to feel. Feeling is counterproductive to my ultimate goals - I know when I have to face a certain kind of warm, oozing fear.

I know it, and I’ll go on.

“Let’s go to Fat Tuesday’s. Have one of the drinks, maybe dance?” asked Nick. My knees were still shaking from something that I dared not reveal. But, maybe it was just from being on the hotel Stairmaster for an hour, without eating dinner. Perhaps not everything was as melodramatic as I liked to think.

Savage Peace. We could talk all we wanted about death squads, training grounds, and small airports that appeared on no one’s maps, except in the occasional classified one, based on satellite photos and infrared reconnaissance. Savage peace, indeed, when the bloodshed was quite immediate, and done for no other reason than a kind of ontological insecurity, one’s own identity wavering, fading, distorting – quickly, out-of-control, toxic like mercury.

"Still thinking about God's Hostages?" I asked. I wanted to see if Nick knew anything about my ex's dad. It was a long shot, but I wanted to make sure.

"Not in this oasis," he said. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. The motel where he had refused to leave was called "The Oasis Motel." It was perhaps a coincidence, perhaps not.

I lost my nerve. It would be easier to go dancing.

“Great idea – let’s do it. I was wearing basic black pants, a white blouse I had bought in Paraguay, basic black shoes. Nothing spandex, no platform sandals, but perhaps it was just as well. My hair was dyed dark auburn-red, my body felt shaky for being about ten pounds over my normal weight, and I knew I was nothing like my normal self. Identity wavering, on the verge of going into another phase. Self-creation, self-fashioning, constructivist moves beginning with obliteration.

Dancing was a good way to start.

South Beach, Part III

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The words of the snake handler echoed in my mind. "The snake, she is stronger than you. The more you struggle, the tighter the grip. You won't ever get away unless you relax."

Both snakes were still wrapped around me. It was fun, but getting to be less so.

"You can have them back, now," I said to the snake handler. "You can take another photo. I'll pay you more," I said. He had quite a racket. You had to pay him to release you from his boa constrictors.

I felt my hands sweating, my knees trembling. Nick at my side, and the thick South Beach air was getting more difficult to inhale as the night wore on. This was a land of con artists and people with pasts they needed to erase. His grown-up high school football player mask was and this could potentially be very tricky. His intensity was only partly masked.

"Felt pretty good to get the snakes off you, didn''t it?" said Nick. His words should have been said with a sense of irony, but they weren't. He wasn't really joking. Then he said something that made me startle.

"Sort of like being 'God's hostage,' isn't it?" he asked. I inhaled sharply and thought of the Vietnam vet in Arlington, Texas --my ex-husband's father, and the afternoon I spent with him, when he told me how God refused to let him leave the hotel. His words still echoed in my head. "He wouldn't let me leave this room for 8 years. And, then, when I disobeyed one time, He re-arranged my teeth."

I looked at Nick. I tried to keep my face a mask.

"If you resist, He'll crush you. But, you know He'll crush you eventually anyway, so your choice is simple. Struggle, and die quickly. Don't struggle, and die slowly," said Nick. He took a drink of his Dos Equis and looked off toward Versace's mansion.

"Sounds about right." I couldn't tell if he was trying to get a reaction out of me or not, or if the reference to "God's hostage" was simply coincidental.

"Yeah, I've seen the film. I've punched Bobo the Clown," I continued. I was referring to Albert Bandura's experiments at Stanford University, where children were shown movies of kids punching a life-size Bobo the Clown knock-down dummy doll. Not surprisingly, when they had a chance, they, too, threw punches at Bobo.

"Are you saying we're all hostages of our conditioning?" asked Nick.

"I don't know what I'm saying." I dug inside my pink faux crocodile bag for my lipstick. "I've met a couple of God's Hostages, and I have to say I'd rather be beaten up by a child programmed by Bandura to think I'm Bobo the Clown."

This was a good place for both of us to be - South Miami Beach. There were dangers, real danger, only partially cloaked by the art deco, the neon, the drinks with touristy names, the women kissing each other in the shadows, the clerks in gift stores giving clients back their counterfeit $20, $50, or $100 bills with a mildly embarrassed "it didn't pass the test."

I had a simple question. Why reject the fake bills? Won't they pass? And, even if they don't, so what? Isn't everything, to a certain degree, counterfeit?

We live in a state of existential fraudulence. The life we define by all the subtle and not-so-subtle connections, coincidences, and karma-driven awakenings is not so easily positioned in the "authentic" realm. Manipulate my perceptions and you manipulate my reality. Change my reality and you change my life.

Sometimes it felt like the only thing real were the bruises. Adrenaline surges meant you could tell when something was putting you in danger. Only things that were real could be harmed. Isn't that right?

All that glisters is not gold. You can't test for "real" with your eyes. I thought of my dad and his equipment for running radiometric surveys to detect the presence of gold, silver, and rare earth elements. He had been spending time in the Nevada desert for years now. Winnemucca, Carlin, Tonopah, Elko, Goldfield -- all were familiar names to me. They were the boa constrictors I was trying to be released from.

It seemed like a good time to change the subject.

"They claimed that Versace had a "quiet life" and that he always went home early, and that he was conservative. I don't believe that for a minute. I mean, this is South Beach."

In one quick moment, the shimmering world Versace had constructed was gone. Worse than Toto tearing the curtain back from the diminutive Wizard of Oz, the murder bared the machine behind the illusion -- the necessity of cruising, using, and furtive, dangerous encounters to construct a fashion so pristine that only the most elegant would wear it.

The boa constrictor tightens its coils. When you look, you see God's -- or Fate's -- hostages all around you. The same dynamics as in every industry -- the marginalized and disenfranchised were fed upon yet again. Calvin Klein used street kids (runaways, junkies, child prostitutes) to push a line of clothes that titillated even as it offended.

"Did his murderer die here too?" I asked Nick. His attitude had subtly changed. He took another drink of his Dos Equis. His polo shirt clung to his biceps. I didn't quite like it.

But, the truth was, such thinking made it easier to do the work I did in South America -- both the red herring activities that made it into the newspapers and television, and the things I didn't tell anyone about except my boss and the Ambassador. I had a copy of the Ambassador's latest book on my nightstand -- Savage Peace -- and I had been reading a few pages each day. It was better for me to do what I did without thinking, without contemplating the ramifications.

My dad was still in the desert. Farley Kritzoff's map was still in my safe deposit box. It had been there for years, and I still wasn't sure what to do with it.

"You have to know when a show of force is necessary. Sometimes you have to let people know you mean business in the only language they understand."

It sounded like a passage out of Savage Peace. Did Nick have an Ambassador (more precisely, an former ambassador) he reported to as well?

The coils would constrict. All knowledge and maps were locked away, inaccessible, for all practical purposes.

South Beach, Part II

Play the podcast -- downloadable sound files.

What is it, precisely, that defines us? This is a question that only comes up when something ridiculous has happened, or you're trying your best to pretend something hasn't happened.

We were in South Miami Beach during hurricane season. That in itself was probably ridiculous enough, but to cheerfully allow someone I didn't even know to drape boa constrictors around me? This guy certainly had persuasive powers. What was he going to convince me to do next? Let him assume my identity?

Yes, it was September, in the middle of hurricane season. Luckily there were no storms, but we were able to get a good price on accommodations. I was working a booth at the IATA conference – the International Air Transport Association – the international body that governs air transport. I certainly did not define myself around air transport, although I love to fly.

I was with Nick, a blonde Irish-Italian American from upstate New York, who had a fresh-faced slightly goofy high-school football player look about him. Despite the innocent face, I suspected he could be easily pushed into obsessiveness, perhaps even of the slightly self-destructive type. Maybe he injected steroids into his buttocks every night. He was a tightly-coiled spring. He exuded drive and soledad from every pore.

At least, that was the romantic take. The other was that he was just a grown-up football player from New York here for a conference.

And, maybe he was here in Miami for something else. He ran a small airport near the Canadian border. What, exactly, did he say he was here to buy?

We walked away from the snake charmer and down the sidewalk jammed with women in tall platform sandals, spandex dresses, darkly tanned bodies. The men were wearing Hawaiian shirts, loose pants, sandals. It was another world, and I wasn't sure I wanted to go back to my "real" one. Ever.

Nick noticed my sudden silence but made no remark. We hadn't talked about it yet, but I could sense we already knew we were in the same business, and that could make things either very difficult or very easy. It just depended on how we wanted to play it.

In an open-air bar, chilled humid air poured out like boiling, tornadic clouds as a flamenco guitarist with Dimarzio pickups on his classical guitar burned the night with tanguillos and arpeggios, reminding me not so much of the Gipsy Kings as Al DiMeola or Paco de Lucia -- especially after a slim, sinewy dancer mounted the small stage. She was next to him, somewhere between two ceiling fans and the humid south Florida air, redolent with flamenco, joyous cacophonies of heel stomps, castanets, and other assorted juxtapositions to bring to mind life bursting out into the phenomenal world like blood on sand "a las cinco de la tarde." At five in the afternoon. Garcia Lorca's bullfighter was dead. The Spanish Civil War began at five in the afternoon as well, with planes bombing Granada.

A sculpted python was wrapped around the portal over the entrance of the bar. It was the classic Garden of Eden motif promising temptation and eventual seduction. The night was fetid with histories of those who had fallen before us.

"I can see why Versace stayed here. He could step outside his door and find inspiration for his fashions, his designs," I said. "But I don't quite believe the media -- it was a typical homophobic portrayal if you ask me. Gay stalkers, rough trade."

"The alleged murderer was a fake, too. But, you know I've met a lot of fakes like that -- they're everywhere," said Nick.

I looked at Nick. The snake was moving around my waist and my thighs. I could feel it starting to constrict.

Yes. Something was tightening around my body, squeezing the breathe out of me, crushing my feeble efforts to preserve my dignity.

"Fakes? Con artists?" I said. "They get to be pretty obvious. They try too hard and they don't even know it -- the fake Rolexes, the fake travel facts about world resorts. The more they try, the more errors they make. You can't say too much."

Saturday, March 05, 2005

South Beach, Part I

Play the Podcast (downloadable sound file).


I think I would have been okay with the boa constrictor around my neck until its owner put another one on top of it. He was a skinny hyper guy with tanned leather for skin. This was not pleasant. The snakes -- each about 6 feet long -- were writhing restlessly over my shoulders and one was putting its head disturbingly near my left breast. The second boa constructor was yellow - the color of maize, and it was definitely edgy.

"Hey, it's hungry, tiene hambre y me da asco," I said. The skinny guy moved the yellow one closer to my neck and laughed.

"Si, she's hungry, but if you don't smell like a rat she won't bite you," he said. I looked at his face. He had blue eyes and dark curly hair, tangled, but not dredlocked. I didn't want to hurt his feelings, but I hated his snakes. I thought it was exploitation, too. Exploiting my fears. Exploiting the reptiles. Exploiting people's fantasies about what it means to be in a place of the eternal carnivalesque. I loved it. Welcome to South Miami Beach.

Versace was murdered 500 yards from here and his sister still lives in the house. 2:00 am and a light on in a second-floor bedroom window.

He was savagely killed in a moldering Italianate Sunset Boulevard-esque mansion facing the beach. And now, the mansion was a featured stop on a "Graveline Tours" bus. Flashbulbs blinded us as we stood on the sidewalk in front of the wrought-iron fence that skirted the house. Fame was equally glaring and painful.

"Look, the snake he bit me once, but I had been carrying the little ratoncitos by their little colitas --- look here at where he bit his sister snake," he said. He then wrapped the two snakes around Nick, my "compaƱero," who was being surprisingly good-natured about all this. After all, if the boa constrictors got any more restless, we'd die together, our necks crushed in the same, loving, snakey embrace.

"This makes a good photo for the two of you -- something to show your grandchildren." Obviously he thought Nick and I were married. The truth was, we had met each for the first time about six hours earlier.

"Saca la foto, please - me voy a desmayar, te juro, and if I faint, I'll fall on them," I tried to keep the panic out of my voice. Maybe they were pythons. Or anacondas. It didn't matter. I didn't want them to think I smelled even vaguely rodent.

"Ja, you've got a good sense of humor, sister -- they're stronger than you. You can't hurt them."

"Too bad," I thought.

In the photo he charged Nick 15 bucks for, I was shamming a smile, I guess the best approach would have been trying to look hip and cool, with the yellow?maize python flicking its tongue over the space between my breasts, and the dark-brown sister curling itself itself around my shoulder, lifting its head and staring straight at the camera.

Nick looked pretty relaxed about it all, amazingly enough. And, now I had a Polaroid to prove I had actually handled a baby boa (or python). I could picture myself in a boat trip down the Amazon or the Orinoco, with boas and anacondas dripping like sap from the low branches. Heart of Darkness. The horror. The beauty. The thrill of losing yourself and then realizing you'd never lost yourself at all, you'd just stopped relying on the mirror to define you.

Five Times Into the Prayer

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This poem was inspired by medieval mystics, religious architecture, and the life and times of Mary Marshall Dyer.


Five times into the prayer
I begin to understand the form;
words echoing, smooth domed ceiling
a voice reverberating
echo chamber of reality
this tight, closed space;
I roll out the carpet,
I bow my head --
will today be the day I finally forgive myself?
Tears dripping softly onto the surface
I'm tired of too many failed attempts,
too many dark nights of the soul.
I understand nothing yet; I must persevere;
there is no short-cut
the moon is a sharp sliver tonight
I look upward, think of Julian of Norwich
and other mystics --
A lifetime from here, someone
locks herself away to silence, seclusion, prayer.
I am not shocked.
I understand her thought:
"The mind must be quiet to communicate with you."
The outside world seems peculiar, sad, pointless --
can we ever transcend the space of our own consciousness?
Manipulation is a threadbare cruelty.
Commitment is a kindness one gives to oneself.
The prayer mat glides me
softly toward a place I've never been;
five times into the prayer
a face appears to me,
bathed in joy. I do not recognize it.
I lean forward.
My face touches the wool.
My body aches for forgiveness.
Five times into the prayer
I begin to understand
words take shape
the name is something I am starting to see
converted into lines
intricate patterns like iron
wrought into gates and entries
calligraphy is a barrier and a gateway
iron wrought by fire, but cooled by pure
sweet water; patterns forming
locks and labyrinths
words requiring breath
the breath in me guides me;
the words forming lines across lines
maps of time not place
I breathe. I pray.
I hear the soft words
and then echoes that repeat
endlessly, limited only
by my ability to hear.
Five times into the prayer,
but five thousand time into the echo
the carpet thick and soft against my knees
I am curled up alone here, but
a higher power is at my side, whispering
guidance & guiding me in it,
a place of eternal echoes,
the architecture of transcendence
a window, or at least,
a hope.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Home of the Artist

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I visited the home of the artist, Ilya Repin (1844-1930), a painter who lived in the forests near St. Petersburg, Russia. He painted historical and religious scenes -- perhaps the most famous was his painting, The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mahmoud IV. 1880-1891, which I had a chance to view at the Russian Museum. It can also be viewed online at Olga's Gallery. If you look closely at the picture, you'll see a few characteristic articles -- dagger, flasks, blankets -- some of the props are at Repin's house, now a museum. Strangely enough, a few years later, I was visiting a museum in Gandje, Azerbaijan, and they had a few items affiliated with Repin. To my amazement, I recognized some of the items in the painting! It was really surprising. Repin's house was an interesting place -- lots of light and stained glass. He had a lazy-susan arrangement in the dining area-- guests had to serve themselves. He was known as quite the eccentric -- now a Russian treasure. His work is, in some ways, an homage to empire. The museum docents were very professional and rigorous. I enjoyed it, but felt drained after....

Home of the Artist

Rain streaming down a glass belly
my fear outstretches itself
at this figure of a bat sprawled in a window,

paned and impaled by day;
the surface is smooth, the history abrasive

like our guide’s voice: “Welcome to Repin’s Home!”
and then, seeing my friend’s cell phone,
mumbled something about "new russians"
or was it "foreigners"-- I couldn't tell.

But the only foreigner was me, trying to
downplay my Americanness, surrounded
by old uniforms, dried sweat, and mildew
rising up from the subjects of study after study --

Repin painting with a three-foot brush,
palette strapped to his waist – he, treating his failing eyes
carpal tunnel syndrome & trembling hands with defiance –

“I am the reincarnation of Peter the Great” he said,
and his self-portraits looked nothing like himself,

but Himself – he who pronounced all guests self-sufficient;
he sentenced those with aristocratic leanings into “the box”
where they defended their inability to mind themselves
and themselves alone.

The rain issued out from the night
like cloud after cloud of bats;
it froze me into my mind’s own window;
History's rage spewed, my English consonants buzzed
like swarms of locusts devouring one's holy land.

Last night, streaks of rain interrupted the window;
today, the pane interrupts the rain.

Transparent glass in the shape of a flying bat
is portraiture of memory itself;
glory, preservation, with identity-making
in spite of clarity and flight.

Yes, flying is a state of mind;
it is a reaching up, or an echo, it is a sounding
or a fearful shame –

Day and night
are so confused these days.